From Sears kit to green home

The changing face of real estate in River Forest

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

For over 80 years, the lot at the northeast corner of Forest and Chicago Avenues in River Forest was home to an example of one of the most popular genres of houses in the early 20th century -- the Sears catalog home. 

Between 1908 and 1940, more than 70,000 Sears catalog homes were built in North America. At the time they were constructed, the Sears homes offered the latest in technology, including electricity, indoor plumbing and central heating. 

After living in their 1920s-era Sears home at 807 Forest Ave. for almost a decade, Sue Crothers and Bill Gee were looking to expand the house while updating to a new generation's technology in the form of sustainable living amenities. 

When architects and builders told them their best move was to demolish the house and build new, the couple came up with a unique way of saving the home and getting the green house of their dreams.

Gee recalls that in 2005, he and his wife were hoping to expand their home in an environmentally friendly way.

"In order to get everything we wanted, we were told we'd have to knock it down," Gee said.

But, the couple liked their Sears home and its sense of history.

"We couldn't bring ourselves to tear it down," Crothers said.

They didn't have to go far for a better solution. Their next-door neighbors at the time were grappling with the problem of a house with serious foundation issues. Crothers and Gee sold them their Sears home for $1. 

The neighbors demolished their previous home, dug a new basement with a sturdy foundation, and hired a firm to move the Sears house to the lot next door.

It was a win in more ways than one. 

"For us, we didn't have to destroy a house we loved," Crothers said. "Plus, we saved money because we didn't have tear-down costs."

Building new

Working with Archimage Architects' Kirk and Sheri Stephens and contractor Tim Kelly, and with Crothers acting as general contractor, the pair spent almost two years building their new home on their old lot. 

Crothers notes that the appearance of the house was a key factor in their plans. 

"As you drive down Chicago Avenue, you see these larger estate homes, but on Forest Avenue, the homes are smaller," Crothers said. "We built a smaller face on the front that fits in on Forest, and the wider side of the house fronts Chicago."

Even more important than the looks was the environmental impact of the home. While LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for residential construction was not the norm at the time, they followed the construction regulations for having a LEED-certified building. 

With every detail in the home, they sought to create a home with a smaller environmental footprint, as well as one that was healthy.

They implemented a geo-thermal heating and cooling system and employed passive techniques for keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer. 

Many of the home's windows are south-facing to capture warmth in the winter. In the summer, they employ slatted shutters that allow the air to circulate while still blocking out the stronger summer sun.

In the second-floor bedrooms, they used transom windows to allow for better air flow, and operable skylights on the stairwells also allow heat to escape.

Rockwool insulation keeps the house warm without the off-gassing of traditional insulation, and the paints and wood finishes throughout the house were specifically chosen to be no-VOC (volatile organic compound) so that they too would not off-gas.

The couple placed a 900-gallon tank in the basement to reclaim water and use it to water their yard, which is home to native plantings and an edible garden.

"We quickly realized how fast you can go through that much water," Gee said. "We added more native plants and minimized grassy lawn spaces to cut down on our watering needs."

Throughout the house, the couple chose materials with an eye towards sustainability as well. The wood flooring and kitchen cabinets are Lyptus, a eucalyptus hybrid that is forestry stewardship-certified and regrows in 15 years.  

Crothers notes that in the 11 years since they built the home, many more environmentally-friendly products have come on the market, but she points out that the kitchen is still an area with only a few available sources. 

"It's really hard to find a kitchen that doesn't use formaldehyde or particle board," she said.

Other choices of materials were lighter on the planet and sometimes lighter on the wallet. Permeable pavers in the driveway and patio allow the water to seep through to the ground rather than being diverted into the sewer system as run off. 

For tiles and countertops, they used remnant pieces from other construction projects, and even their cement-tiled roof was purchased at a discount because it was surplus from someone else's construction.

Using environmentally friendly building techniques was costlier at the forefront of the project, but the couple was able to achieve some savings through their use of reclaimed materials.

While it doesn't contribute to the greening of the home itself, one of Gee's favorite parts of the process was the customization of their bed. When a white oak tree on their property fell during a storm, they took the tree to Horigan Urban Forest in Chicago, who cured and milled the wood. They then had a local carpenter build them a bed.

Over the years, Crothers and Gee have opened up their home and yard to many, including edible garden tours, 7th Generation Ahead green home tours and sustainable food tours for Roosevelt School, and they have enjoyed being a part of the environmental movement in the village. 

As empty nesters, they are looking to hand their labor of love over to new owners and have listed the roughly 5,200-square-foot home with Greer Haseman of @properties for $2,437,500.

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